It’s a shame, considering Gilbert’s other overshadowed works have much to praise about. Committed (2012), the follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, was a candid and witty page-turner on the institution of marriage. Her collection of short stories (Pilgrims, 1997) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award and her first novel (Stern Men, 2000), was a New York Times Notable Book. So, Gilbert has proven that she can do a convincing balancing act between fiction and non-fiction.
Gilbert’s second novel and latest offering, The Signature of All Things, doesn’t disappoint either. It is an ambitious saga of 19th century botanical exploration and tracks the joys and travails of the Whittaker family. The story revolves around Henry Whittaker, a brilliant mind, who despite his humble beginnings creates a botanical empire, and his brilliant daughter Alma who carries on the mantle.
Along the way, several characters appear, including Alma’s enigmatic adopted sister Prudence who turns crusader and helps African-Americans, the idealist Ambrose Pike (he marries Alma), who believes in angels and the essential connectedness of all things through nature or God’s signature of all things through nature (hence, the title).
Moving seamlessly from London to Amsterdam to Philadelphia and Tahiti, the novel explores the heartbreaks the characters face, the significant movements of the times, including Spiritualism, sea voyages, research on mosses, flowers and plants, the rise of Darwin and the theory of evolution. It also stresses on the inferior status accorded to women (botanists and otherwise) in those times. The Botany angle might not tempt the reader initially, but Gilbert’s well-researched and pacy plot, peppered with revelations, holds its own from cover to cover.